Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. The Pentagon needs money for the war in Iraq... folks along the Gulf Coast could use a little cash for hurricane relief... and some of America's farmers are requesting funds for other natural disasters. So, late this week, a House-Senate conference committee appropriated $94.5 billion in supplemental funding. Requests for the military and hurricane relief were approved, but $4 billion in Senate-passed farm disaster aid was rejected, except for producers along the Gulf Coast. But that's not to say agriculture is ignored in Washington. According to the Agriculture Department, four of every 10 farmers receive government subsidies — primarily those who grow corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. USDA expects to spend $20 billion subsidizing farmers this year under current law. The legislation, commonly known as the farm bill, distributes those funds through scores of programs... everything from trade and marketing initiatives, including direct-payment subsidies, to conservation programs. The current farm bill is scheduled to expire next year. And this week, experts testified to the Senate Agriculture Committee on the success of current conservation programs.
When the 2002 Farm bill was signed into law, President Bush told Americans that for farmers and ranchers every day was Earth Day. Since that day, the National Resources Conservation Service has invested $6.6 billion, providing assistance to one million farmers and ranchers on 130 million acres of land.
This week, the head of the NRCS, Bruce Knight testified about the progress of the 20 conservation programs administered by his department.
Bruce Knight, USDA-NRCS: "Conservation programs on working agricultural lands benefit both producers and the public supporting sustainable agriculture and enhancing the environment."
Knight was joined by representatives of various farm and habitat development groups. Though their statements had a generally positive stance there were a few comments that offset the overall upbeat mood.
Olin Sims, National Association of Conservation Districts: "Our membership has voiced some concern about the number of programs and some of the producers down at the local level sometimes don't understand which program would work for them best and they need some assistance with that."
The Conservation Security program, originally spearheaded by Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, was expanded this year to cover 25 million acres in 60 watersheds. Even with the increases over the previous three years Harkin continues to be displeased with the way CSP has been administrated.
Tom Harkin, D-Iowa: "Mr. Knight, again, I want to thank you for taking charge of the CSP. The work that you have been doing on correcting some of the earlier missteps I think it's moving ahead fine now, though as you know I still have a problem with watershed-based approach on this...How long, and if you can't answer today If you'd just get back to me I'd appreciate it, how many years would it take NRCS offer CSP on every watershed atleast once.
Bruce Knight, USDA-NRCS: "Our original intent, as you know, was able to do it once every eight years, but because of some of the restrictions on spending we are probably fallen off that eight year schedule."
And the confusion over how CSP is handled at the local level brought some criticism from Jim Andrew of the Iowa Soybean Association.
Jim Andrew, Iowa Soybean Association: "Many farmers are becoming disillusioned and frustrated with the slow pace of program implementation. The ever changing rules and budgetary constraints differ greatly from the way the program was originally explained to the farmer and are causing some to give up before they even enroll."
Despite the complaints from the non-governmental witnesses, the Bush administration's representatives report they are working hard to streamline the process and put more money in the pockets of producers.
Bruce Knight, USDA-NRCS: "Every dime we are able to save in program administration costs, because of direct-charge system, in turn, means additional contracts we're able to put on the ground.